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DIGITAL—Digital Divide Raises Questions About Technology Use

When director George Lucas presented “Star Wars: Episode I the Phantom Menace” on digital video in a few theaters in 1999, all of Hollywood seemed to agree they were looking at the future. The film’s multimillion-dollar success seemed to prove it was a technology that was here to stay. But two years later, digital movies are nowhere close to replacing their film counterparts. In fact, some now say the drive to digitize movies has nearly ground to a halt, with financially-strapped movie exhibitors leading the charge against full-scale implementation of the new technology. In 1999, “The Last Broadcast” was the first digital film to be distributed nationally. It was transmitted via satellite to a handful of theaters in five cities with digital projection equipment. The movie made little impact on moviegoers, but it sparked interest in the fledgling technology. Director George Lucas’ “Star Wars: Episode I” was screened in a few selected theaters using digital projection equipment; most theaters presented the film in the traditional 70mm format. Moreover, there are now only 30 digitally equipped movie houses out of about 37,000 movie theaters in the U.S., according to the National Association of Theater Owners. John Fithian, organization president, said those 30 are part of a pilot program aimed at testing the new technology. He noted the program is still too new to be deemed a success. Lucas’ next “Star Wars” film will be recorded on digital video and is scheduled to be distributed in 2003, when he hopes digital projection will be commonplace. Bob Mayson, general manager of cinema operations for the Eastman Kodak Company, said the new technology’s expense and lack of uniformity among the studios themselves is perhaps the biggest drawback to full implementation. “Who would pay $200,000 for a digital system that only one or two studios support, when they can get a $16,000 projector that works with every film?” Mayson asked. Eastman Kodak figures to be hardest hit when the movie industry moves from film to digital video. It produces most of the estimated $1.5 billion of film stock used each year. But while multiplex owners like Edwards Cinema and Loews Cineplex Entertainment have been struggling financially, some say movie exhibitors are ready to go fully digital. David Baker, development director for CyberStar, a satellite transmission company for digital films, says even small exhibitors will be able to make the move to digital in the next year or two. “People are basically ready to go right now,” he said. Officials at Burbank-based Warner Brothers Pictures say they are still examining the technology and would not comment on when or whether the studio would be willing to completely convert to digital filmmaking. “We’re testing these cameras to see how they perform. Until we’ve concluded these tests, we won’t know how we’ll proceed,” said Ted Marburg, Warner Brothers vice president of technical operations. The company has ordered two Sony/Panavision digital video cameras. “We have many concerns about the technology, but we’re open to test it and see how it can work for us,” he said. Across the street at Walt Disney Studios, officials are pushing for an industry organization that would assure the availability of the high-tech equipment for exhibitors and keep distribution costs low. That enthusiasm is not shared among other studios. A few miles away, Universal Studios spokeswoman Amanda Schuler says her studio has no films planned using the digital technology. While some local studios are slow to embrace digital moviemaking, others in the industry are downright opposed to it. Victor Kemper, president of the American Society of Cinematographers, says the technology remains inferior to celluloid film. “The truth is that 35 mm film has a capacity for recording at least twice as much resolution or image information as today’s Hi Def Digi cameras,” he said. Kemper also complained that digital cameras have limited visual range, rendering them unable to capture various levels of light and dark that are pivotal to cinematography. Perhaps more important to film historians is that the digital medium does not last as long as film does, with an estimated life of about 30 years before its data begins disintegrating. Film, experts say, can last more than 100 years. Joerg Agin, president of entertainment imaging at Eastman Kodak, said film remains far and away superior to digital video. “Today, a single frame of film captures 12 million pixels of information. The best digital sensor captures 2 million,” he said, noting that film can resolve 20 million colors, or more than 10 times that of digital cameras.

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